|Jun-jun is a 'jeepney barker'. © UNICEF UK/Philippines 2010/Sharron Lovell|
A journey through the islands and history of the Philippines
Balut is probably South East Asia’s most gruesome delicacy. It’s a fertilized duck egg with a half-grown embryo that is boiled alive and eaten whole. For Filipinos, balut is a treat. They buy it from street vendors or in local restaurants. Filipino children will cheerfully crunch their way through the foetal bones and feathers but just the thought of it makes me feel ill.
By 2013, I’d been visiting the Philippines for five years. I’d dived with thresher sharks, climbed an active volcano, and visited 2,000-year-old rice terraces. But each time I’d managed to avoid eating one particular delicacy. However, if you really want to understand the Philippines, you have to embrace balut. Eating it is considered a rite of passage to becoming an honorary Filipino. Finally, I gave in. “OK, let’s do it,” I said to my Filipina friend Marge.
“I’m really happy you’re going to eat balut,” she replied. “It’s part of everyday Filipino life. I’ve eaten it since I was a child. We can go to Pateros, they have the best balut in Manila.”
Early the next morning, Marge picked me up in a taxi and we set off to Pateros to meet up with our local contact, Mei. As well as taking us to eat balut, Mei had agreed to show us how it was made and its place in the history and culture of Pateros. The name on the town is derived from Spanish and means ‘the place where the ducks are’. Pateros is so far off the tourist radar that it’s not even in the Lonely Planet index, and I was literally the only foreigner in town.
The streets were full of pedestrians, tuk-tuks and colourful jeepneys. Street vendors lined the pavements selling fruit, vegetables and eggs – both regular and fertilized. We saw one enterprising vendor with a psychedelic collection of caged birds, their feathers dyed bright and unnatural colours. “This is the real Manila,” Marge observed. “It’s not sanitized like Makati.”
We met Mei outside Jollibee, the Filipino equivalent of McDonald’s, advertised with a surreal sign featuring a giant red bee with a human face. Mei took us down a side street to one of the cottage factories where balut is made. Here we met Marty Capco, a middle-aged Filipina woman who managed the factory.
“Our family has been making balut for three generations,” she told us. “We still make them the traditional way.” Buying balut eggs from Pateros used to be a guarantee of quality, but other places now have their eggs delivered from large out-of-town factories. “They’re just using the name,” Marty said.
We went inside the factory – a medium-sized barn with a couple of electric bulbs hanging from the ceiling. It was very dark and it took a minute for my eyes to adjust. The barn was full of tables piled high with perfectly-formed white eggs. We spoke to Francisco, an aging Filipino man who was busy sorting eggs by holding them against a light box. This allowed him to see the size of the embryo inside the now translucent shell.
“I’m originally from Pampanga province, but I’ve lived and worked here for 40 years,” Francisco said. “I do this job to support my family – I have a wife and six children.” He pointed to a nearby sack of eggs. “We let the eggs age for ten days in rice husks. After ten days, I sort them and choose the ones that are ready for cooking.”
Francisco kept looking at the light box while he spoke, barely slowing the rapid movement of his hands. I had assumed that egg sorting was just one of his duties but in fact he’d been doing this one task for decades. “I’m just a segregator,” he said.
Next, Mei took us to Pateros Church, where people were busy preparing for the fiesta of Santa Marta. In a tradition inherited from Spanish colonial times, each town and municipality has a patron saint which they celebrate once a year with a lavish party. In the square opposite the church, a group of artists were painting murals on large boards, depicting the history of the town.
We spoke to Eli, a tattoo artist with heavily inked arms and legs and the sunken cheeks of a much older man. His picture included a duck and balut eggs but was dominated by a huge crocodile, with a Santa Marta figure between its gaping jaws. “It’s based on local folklore,” Eli explained. “There used to be a crocodile that lived down by the river. It was eating all the ducks so the people killed it with a sword. Inside its mouth, they found the image of Santa Marta.”
Eventually I had to face the inevitability of lunchtime. We went to a restaurant called Dos Hermanas, owned by Danny, a heavy set man in a communist hammer-and-sickle t-shirt. Marge told him I was interested in balut, and he happily explained his culinary technique.
“We cook the eggs 18 days after they come out the chicken’s ass,” he said, pointing at his own backside. “We marinate the egg for a few hours then cook it slowly for 30 minutes.” A troubling thought occurred to me for the first time. If the duckling was still inside the egg, there was no way to kill it before it was cooked. “Are they boiled alive?” I asked. “Yes of course,” Danny replied.
By this point I was feeling distinctly queasy, with the same nervous feeling in the stomach that I get before going to the dentist. The feeling became stronger when the eggs arrived, looking all white and innocent on a small plate. Mei demonstrated how to eat one.
“You crack the top and drink the soup,” she said. “Then peel it and eat it in two bites.” She showed me a line around the middle of her peeled egg. “The top half is the chick, the bottom is the yolk. You should eat the chick first. The trick is not to look at it – just do it.”
As soon as I cracked my own egg, a strong smell emanated from inside. I drank the liquid inside, which had an intense meaty flavour. Then I peeled the egg. It was impossible to do this without looking at it. On the inside of the shell was a web of what appeared to be blood vessels. I was left with an egg-shaped ball of meat and yolk. The embryo was curled up in a foetal position, facing inwards, but I could still see the black strands of half-formed feathers and something dark and round that looked suspiciously like an eye.
I’d come too far to turn back, so with a pained look at Marge, I bit into the meat half. Like the soup, there was nothing wrong with the flavour, which was similar to roast chicken. It was the idea of it and the texture that were unpleasant. The worst part was a crunchy bit in the middle that presumably was a blend of beak and skull. Finally I ate the yolk, which was similar to a normal hard-boiled egg, but with traces of blood.
Balut is supposed to be an aphrodisiac but sex was the last thing on my mind when I finished. Instead, I just felt vaguely nauseous. Marge only ate the yolk of her egg. “My older brothers always used to eat the chick for me,” she confessed.
Curious to see what balut really looked like now I’d finished, I dissected Marge’s leftovers. Uncoiled, the foetus was clearly a duckling, with webbed feet, small wings and an oversized head with a beak and saucer-like eyes. Mei was right – there was no way I could eat another one now I’d seen it whole. I was aware that my reaction was mainly cultural. For Filipinos who are brought up with it, eating balut is perfectly normal.
“My daughter Moonshine is seven.” Mei said. “She loves balut. She eats the yolk first and unwraps the chick. She kisses it on the beak and says ‘poor chick, why did you have to die?’ Then she eats it.”
* * *
I didn’t set out to write a book about the Philippines. In fact, my initial inspiration came from the failed state of Somalia and it happened in UNICEF UK’s comfy new office in Farringdon, central London. It was the start of 2009 and I was interviewing former BBC war correspondent Martin Bell who had just got back from Somalia, which had been in the news over pirate hijackings.
Something of a reporting legend, Martin was now a UNICEF Ambassador for Humanitarian Emergencies. He was older and heavier than I remembered him from his TV reporting days but retained his trademark white suit, distinctive deep voice and ‘Queen’s English’ accent, which used to be required for employment at the BBC.
We sat in a tiny meeting room in the eaves of UNICEF House, which doubled as my no-budget recording studio. There was building work going on outside and we had to wait for a break in the drilling before starting. Martin was one of the UK’s most respected journalists and clearly not the type to suffer fools gladly. I felt like an amateur reporter and was terrified that he would find me out. I took a sip of coffee and checked the red record light on my Dictaphone for the hundredth time.
I asked Martin what had affected him most about his visit to Somalia. “Whenever you go on these trips, you find children who touch your heart,” he said. “I remember particularly a child called Mona. She was six. A beautiful girl, beautifully dressed in a sparkly grey headscarf and dress. She’d been a refugee for two years. Her house in Mogadishu had been hit by a shell and her father was killed. She and her mother were lucky to escape.
“Mona was also fortunate among those refugee kids because she’d actually had a year’s education. She was full of ambition and her hope was to become a teacher. Of course, that depends on peace of a sort in which schools can function. But more than half of the population of Somalia are under the age of 18. They are the country’s future, and the future has to be in their education.”
Interviewing Martin, I started to get a sense of the countless stories that were out there to be told, each child a window into a different, intensely personal world. His experience was very different to my own at that point. As Senior Web Editor, my job was to create content to help raise money for UNICEF’s work for children. I would regularly report on stories from obscure corners of the world but usually second hand, by interviewing people who had been there. It was a great cause but I often felt a bit remote from it, as if I was standing outside and looking in through a frosted window.
I felt that I needed to get closer to the programmes and the children we were helping. After a few attempts, I got a three-month secondment to UNICEF Philippines that included visiting and reporting on projects throughout the country. It was the perfect opportunity.
However, I soon realised that I knew very little about Philippines history, culture, politics or people. Even getting hold of a book about the country was a challenge – I eventually found a second hand, American-published history book in Foyles on Charing Cross Road.
I had heard of the dictator Marcos and had a vague feeling that the Philippines had been a Spanish colony, but that seemed odd given that most Spanish conquests were in the other direction, heading west to the Americas like Christopher Columbus rather than east to Asia. I was also aware that the country was English-speaking, which again was unusual for places that hadn't been part of the British Empire. I was intrigued and curious to find out more.
During my time in the Philippines, I wrote a weekly blog for UNICEF UK, which became the starting point for this book. As the blog evolved into a book, I realised that I had three related aims: to tell the story of my travels in the Philippines and the people I met; to chart the history of a country that, in the UK at least, is little known or misunderstood; and to shed some light on the issues facing its children today.
I came to see the Philippines as a microcosm of the wider world at the start of the third millennium. Its natural disasters, the theme of the next chapter, are a stark warning of the impact of climate change. I arrived in Manila in the aftermath of Typhoon Ketsana, which flooded the city and made global headlines. With a low-lying urban metropolis devastated by the natural forces of wind and rain, it was exactly the sort of thing that climate scientists had been predicting for years.
The Philippines is also one of the most densely populated countries in the world, with a stark rich/poor divide. In Manila, billionaire property barons live side-by-side with urban slum dwellers and street families. When a disaster like Ketsana hits, it is the poor that bears the brunt.
The country’s colonial history has left it with a patchwork identity, with influences ranging from the local (balut originated in China) to the global (Spanish fiestas and American fast food), mirroring broader trends in globalisation. Its history is littered with colourful and significant characters, from the Spanish conquistador who first circumnavigated the globe, through the US general who presided over a string of military disasters in the Second World War, to the shoe-obsessed dictator’s wife whose regime was overthrown in the region’s first ‘people power’ revolution.
The Philippines is a predominantly Catholic country and religion plays a big role in people’s daily lives. The south, however, is Muslim and here the government has fought a long-running conflict with Islamic insurgents, including the notorious Abu Sayyuf which has links to Al-Qaeda. Politically, the country is just starting to emerge from an era of corruption, rigged elections and extra-judicial killings. While I was there in 2009, 34 journalists were brutally murdered in a politically-motivated massacre. The atrocity made world news and saw the Philippines become the most dangerous country for journalists, overtaking Iraq.
Yet there is also much to be hopeful about. Rising prosperity has led to the creation of a new urban middle class and the English language education system is turning out skilled professionals who can compete in the global economy. The pristine islands and mountains have great potential for tourism, offering an unspoiled alternative to Thailand. Finally, the 2010 elections showed that democracy was functioning well enough to return a popular anti-corruption candidate.
I was looking for a metaphor for all of this and the first thing that sprung to mind was the jeepney, the unofficial symbol of Manila and main mode of public transport throughout the Philippines. These are World-War-II-era American jeeps, mass produced, brightly decorated, covered with Catholic slogans, and transformed into low-cost busses. They are as overcrowded as the islands themselves, with passengers hanging off the back or sitting on the roof. They pile up at traffic lights across Manila, honking their horns and pumping black exhaust fumes into the atmosphere.
If the jeepney symbolises the Philippines, for me the jeepney barker represents its children. The barkers I met were street children, usually boys, who shout (or ‘bark’) for customers in return for a tip from the driver. I got to know two barkers, Roel and Jun-jun, who worked together as a team – one doing the shouting and the other collecting tips in an empty Coca-Cola bottle. We’ll meet the jeepneys in chapter three and the jeepney barkers in chapter five.
Travelling through the Philippines as a UNICEF worker, travel writer and tourist gave me the chance to experience both the poverty and potential of a country on the brink of change. Like Somali, its future is very much in its children.
|Political Communications in Greater China|
Directing Hong Kong
In Political Communications in Greater China, Gary and Ming-yeh Rawnsley (eds), Routledge Curzon, 2003.
The Politics of Contemporary Cinema
About 'Directing Hong Kong'
This chapter deals with political filmmaking in Hong Kong during the run up to the handover of the colony from British to Chinese rule in 1997. This period is a particularly interesting one to study because of the general uncertainty about the immediate future and the competing ideologies behind the various parties' efforts to shape that future.
On the one hand there was Britain, with its colonial history, promotion of free trade and a broad commitment to democracy. On the other hand was the People's Republic of China (PRC), keen to reassert its territorial claim over Hong Kong and to use the process as a springboard for the eventual return of Taiwan, but also concerned to preserve the territory's economic legacy.
Between these two was a third party - the people of Hong Kong. They had no say in the negotiations and were effectively sidelined by the political process, being allowed to participate only as members of the British team, never in their own right. In the face of the impotence of their politicians, the voice of Hong Kong's people was instead expressed through popular art forms such as cinema.
It is the hypothesis of this chapter that in times of political restriction or inadequacy, popular films can be read as political statements, manifestos even, either reflecting or seeking to lead popular opinion. The wider argument is that the study of popular culture should be seen in the context of contemporary politics and vice versa. This chapter will therefore also explore cultural issues and trace the parallels and transfer of ideas between the cultural and political spheres.
The specific focus of this chapter is on the films made by John Woo and Wong Kar-wai during the run up to the Hong Kong handover - in particular Woo's The Killer (1989) and Wong's Chungking Express (1994). To test the above hypothesis, I shall attempt a political/cultural reading of these film texts and consider their meaning within a historical context. I believe that many films of this period can be read as expressions of popular discontent, apprehension and confusion of identity during the negotiations.
This chapter was also written as part of a broader research project, considering political cinema across China, Hong Kong and Taiwan. Despite the recent popularity of such films on the film festival and art house circuit, the subject is still under-researched. Existing literature tends to fall into two categories: either describing broad cultural patterns, or making close, biographical readings of individual directors' films.
Examples of the former approach include Jianying Zha's 'China's Popular Culture in the 1990s' (1995) and Thomas Gold's 'Go with Your Feelings: Hong Kong and Taiwan Popular Culture in Greater China' (1993), whilst Kwok-kan Tam and Wimal Dissanayake's New Chinese Cinema (1998), is an example of the latter.
There is an equal lack of political film criticism dealing with the Hong Kong directors under consideration here. Existing work on the films of John Woo tends to deal with issues of masculinity and violence, such as Julian Stringer's 'Your Tender Smiles Give me Strength' (1997), whilst that on Wong Kar-wai emphasizes visual style and characterization (Curtis Tsui's 1996 article 'Dissecting the Visual Artistry of Wong Kar-wai').
There is however an extensive literature on Chinese political history, and on the broader issues of globalization, democratization, modernization and the spread of popular culture. This research aims to fill a gap in this literature by applying these general theories to specific film texts, viewing them both as political documents in their own right, and as focal points for larger cultural and political debates, both within Southeast Asia and the West.
About Political Communications in Greater China
This book examines the role played by political communications, including media of all kinds - journalism, television, and film - in defining and shaping identity in Greater China; China, Hong Kong, Taiwan and overseas Chinese. In the context of increasing cross-border interactions of people, investment and commercial products between the component parts of greater China, the book explores the idea that identity, rather than nation-states or political entities, may be the key factor in achieving further integration in Greater China. The book focuses on the ways in which identity is communicated, and shows how communication of identity within and between the component parts of greater China plays a central role in bringing about integration.
Buy this book at Amazon »